Sociopathy: Big Screen (Art) and Small (Not)

Brady Corbet, NYC, 6/23/16

Brady Corbet, NYC, 6/23/16

Hypnotic actor Brady Corbet’s unnerving directorial debut, “The Childhood of a Leader,” which he co-wrote with Monica Fastvold, proceeds with increasing dread, in counterpoint to its sumptuous photography (by Lol Crawley) of the dark and elegant rooms of a large provincial French house and the lovely landscape.

Prescott (Tom Sweet), a pretty young boy with an unfortunate haircut, is first seen in angelic white rehearsing a Christmas pageant at the local church. He’s the son of a Paris-based American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) working closely with President Woodrow Wilson to end the carnage of World War I and a beautiful, anxious French/German mother (Bérénice Bejo). 

The film is divided into four sections, the first three of which chronicle tantrums of increasing severity as Prescott, often affectlessness, begins to manifest his monstrous nature, paralleling, even as a lavish peace celebration is held at the house, fascism’s rise in Europe.

“The Childhood of a Leader” (which won both Best Director and Best Debut Film at the 72nd Venice Festival-Horizons Section) will open on Friday, July 22 at the IFC Center (as well as being available on VoD), and in Los Angeles on Friday, July 29, with further roll-out to follow.

Brady Corbet, who played the seductive sociopath of Antonio Campos’s “Simon Killer” (2012), arrived at my studio with Shane from Cinetic. I knew it was going to be a fun shoot. I asked Brady what VOITH, white letters above his left pocket, meant. It sounded like a lisped pronunciation of the alternative weekly for which I had long photographed. He didn’t quite answer, but said that the shirt was also a good pajama top.

Somehow we next talked about kimonos and I retrieved the vibrantly-embroidered robe that Jane had brought back from Tokyo for me. And Brady wanted to wear it for some of the photos.

In August 2004, Mark and I (and Grover and Leo) spent a week in Cleveland registering voters (mostly Democrats) and having great meals in small owner/chef restaurants in the Fremont and Ohio City neighborhoods. We stayed at the Ritz Carlton (room rates from a different universe than New York), the only hotel in town that took dogs.

Poor Cleveland, hosting the RNC madhouse this week. Such an upsetting display of profoundly crazy vitriol, alternating with vacuity, coming from the stage, and from the delegates on the floor, alternating between mob behavior  and boredom. (And I’m writing this before Trump delivers his so-called “speech of a lifetime.”)

Cleveland, OH

Cleveland, OH

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Seeing The Market for the Trees

Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan, NYC, 6/12/14

Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan, NYC, 6/12/14

When I first watched “For The Plasma,” co-directed and co-edited by Kyle Mozlan and Bingham Bryant (who also wrote the script and produced) at 2014 BAMcinemaFest, I was entranced, if unable to wholly grasp the proceedings. But I was held by the mood–the beauty of the images (shot in 16mm by Chris Messina), the often perfect incongruousness of Keiichi Suzuki’s electronic score, the stylized performances and the potential diversions into genre (horror, sci fi).

I saw affinities with Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” but I was set straight during my shoot with Bingham and Kyle, who said their inspiration was Eric Rohmer. OK.

On second viewing of the film, a few days ago, this information worked as a key: Rohmer’s characters transplanted across the Atlantic (and into the 21st century digital world of omnipresent surveillance, CCTV, computer screens and cellphones–here with peculiarly good rural reception) for an examination of looking, seeing, solitude, collaboration, meaning and female friendship (and its discontents).

Helen (Rosalie Lowe), young, lithe blonde woman #1, has a profound, almost mystical relationship with information and has been able to transform watching the CCTV feeds of a nearby forest in Maine into a lucrative system for predicting financial markets. But when the woodland images on her array of screens are out of alignment with a larger reality of her own (and of unknown origin), she sends her assistant Charlie (Annabelle LeMieux), young lithe blonde woman #2 (who acts as if she’s a cranky Alice newly arrived in Wonderland), to the evergreens, hardwoods and ferns to report from the field.

The two work and live in a lovely rambling clapboard and shingled house set on idyllic and seemingly remote grounds. There is unspecified tension between them. Charlie hears things go bump in the night and during a nocturnal power cut, a man enters the house, lighting his face from below with a flashlight (like an easy monster effect), to investigate reported screams.

“Don’t shoot,” he jokes and introduces himself as Herbert, the keeper of the nearby lighthouse. A dead ringer for the future version of Tim Blake Nelson, he’s a winker, which grafts a bit of comedy onto his (possibly wholly imagined) facts and stories.

Time passes (mostly observable by the women’s outfits) and a pattern of observing, inertia and exploratory trips develops, which is suddenly broken as Helen hastily abandons the forest and the markets for the heavens, making her escape with Herbert on his sailboat.

“For the Plasma” will open on Thursday, July 21 at Anthology Film Archives for a one-week run. On July 21 and Friday, July 22 there will be a Q&A with Bingham Bryant following the 7:00 pm screenings and he will intro the 9:15 pm shows. The film will expand nationally on Friday, July 29, followed by a limited-edition Blu-ray and vinyl LP set of the film and its original score.

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Dandecide and Birds on a Dogleg (Stillwater Diary)

Dandelions, Stone Ridge, NY, 5/8/16

Dandelions, Stone Ridge, NY, 5/8/16

I don’t like yellow (unless it’s mixed with lots of red), with one big exception–Labrador fur. I particularly dislike dandelion yellow and I’ve been ridding  the lawn-ish and the spaces between the bluestones of the unwanted flowers.

The plants have tenacious roots that resist tugging, Roundup is always overkill and the leaves are attractive (and their relatives, delicious with marinated anchovies and a mustardy dressing), welcome to continue growing, so my method is to pop off the buds as they appear. And to reach into the dandelion’s navel where invariably another tight green globe hides. Those I miss are pulled off when they become blaring flowers. Three years into my experiment, it seems that by reducing the number of dandelions that can go to seed (the beautiful ethereal stage), I’ve eliminated lots of yellow.

Dandelions, Stone Ridge, NY, 5/17/16

Dandelions, Stone Ridge, NY, 5/17/16

Where the gutter/drain pipe makes a dogleg, there’s a nest built from grasses and moss. Last year’s attempt to colonize the same area failed, swept to the ground by wind and rain. Babette, from my imperfect description of the nest and its inhabitants, said that the birds were probably Phoebes, and as we talked, I saw one balance on a large dried stalk. She asked if the bird seemed to wag its tail. Funnily enough, yes. ID confirmed.

Phoebes, Stone Ridge, 6/18/16

Phoebes, Stone Ridge, 6/18/16

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Abbas Kiarostami 1940-2016

Abbas Kiarostami, NYC, 10/5/12

Abbas Kiarostami, NYC, 10/5/12

The great Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami died in Paris yesterday where he had been undergoing treatment for cancer.

In February 2013, Kiarostami’s “Like Someone in Love,” which had premiered in the United States at the 2012 NYFF, opened in New York and I wrote about the film, with reference to a few of his others:

In the films of the great director Abbas Kiarostami, cinematic illusion has always kept company with reality.  His films are real, true yet simultaneously ambiguous and mysterious and the border between characters’ actual and seeming identities is porous.

In Kiarostami’s second film shot outside of his native Iran, “Like Someone In Love,” Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a sociology student in Tokyo, makes ends meet by working as a call girl.  (My college friends and I dressed less provocatively at work–blue and white houndstooth shifts and hair nets–as we dished out ice cream and fried food at a Howard Johnson’s in upstate New York).

Meeting her latest date at his apartment in the suburbs, Akiko is surprised when the door is opened by Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), a courtly, elderly widowed academic who wants to cook her dinner but inadvertently ignores her, giving his attention to work-related phone calls.  Bored, she curls up in his bed.

Visually this is not Ozu’s Tokyo but there are echoes of the distance between the generations chronicled by the Japanese master in Akiko’s inability to find time to see her grandmother, in Tokyo for just the day.  Yet the following morning in Tokyo when her hot-headed boyfriend mistakes Takashi for her grandfather, she seamlessly assumes her new role, as does the elderly man.

Kiarostami’s films have always been characterized by a contemplative pace, partially improvised dialog working off loosely written scripts and the casting of non-professional actors.  Tadashi Okuno, a theater actor, not entirely unfamilar with the filmmaking process, had spent 50 years as an extra, never saying a line, until cast in “Like Someone in Love.”  Offered another part in an upcoming film, Kiarostami  said that Okuno declined, wanting “to go back into the background.”

And a lot of driving occurs in Kiarostami’s films.  He said that all of his other films “were misuses of the car,”* were “practice for this film, the young woman and the old man together. The car is the best place to have a conversation.  It’s intimate, private, yet you don’t have to look at each other.  And no one can leave.”

I photographed Abbas Kiarostami for the first time in 1997 when “Taste of Cherry” screened at the New York Film Festival and not again until 2012 when he accompanied “Like Someone in Love” to NYFF.  He had not visited the United States often in the intervening years, once denied a visa in the hysteria and xenophobia of 2002, when “Ten” was included in NYFF.

In protest Aki Kaurismaki (whose “The Man With No Past” was also slated for NYFF) stayed home in Finland.  To my few non film-obsessed freinds, my upsetting  news/the names must have sounded like gibberish: “Abbas Kiarostami denied entry to this country so Aki Kausimaki has refused to attend”–it elicited a confused, “Whaaaaa?”

*Presumptuous of me, I know, to disagree, but I think (at the very least) both “Ten” and “Taste of Cherry” (winner of the Palme d’Or in 1997) were not “misuses of the car.”

Much more about Kiarostami’s life and work is collected at Fandor’s Keyframe.

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Olivia de Havilland: 100

Olivia de Havilland, NYC, 4/6/04

Olivia de Havilland, NYC, 4/6/04

It was the 65th anniversary year of “Gone With The Wind.” Olivia de Havilland, long the sole surviving major cast member, and nearly 90 in April 2004, flew to New York from her home in Paris to talk about GWTW and the swashbucklers she had made with Errol Flynn (indelibly Maid Marian to his Robin Hood), for commentary extras for special edition DVDs.

I was assigned to shoot portraits of Miss de Havilland and stills of her reminiscing about her life, her time in Hollywood starring in some of the most well-known films of Tinseltown’s golden age and her famous co-stars. She sounded exactly like Olivia de Havilland (it was thrilling and a bit unsettling) and was funny, forthcoming and frank, her memory (and eyes) undimmed. She was still beautiful.

The shoot took place in a well-appointed (as they say) suite in the Pierre Hotel. The video crew claimed the large living room and I was dismayed (but not surprised) that the emptied bedroom we’d been promised by hotel staff was full of overstuffed furniture and an oversized bed. I called the front desk, who promised that maintenance would pop by immediately.

Photography is often about rearranging the furniture and it was easy to relocate the chairs and desk to the hotel corridor but the bed was larger than the doors. Sean (I was so lucky he’d been available to work with me) brandished his Leatherman and effortlessly (or so he made it seem) dismantled the frame. Its pieces and the mattress and boxspring were also moved to the hallway. Maintenance never arrived.

We set up the seamless and lights. I had met Miss de Havilland while she was having her makeup done and when she entered the room, I introduced her, “Miss de Havilland, this is   Sean Sime.” She responded, “Pleasure, young man.” He was crouching to the right of the tripod and he, too, a bit unsettled by her presence and beautiful voice, nearly fell over.

The great Olivia de Havilland is 100 today. Born on July 1, 1916 in Tokyo to British parents, she grew up in California. She was discovered by an associate of Max Reinhardt’s in a college production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and began acting professionally at 18, working steadily in Hollywood for three decades. She won the Best Actress Oscar twice–for “To Each His Own” (1946) and “The Heiress” (1949).

For Babette and me, she’s Mellie (playing plain–against type), the almost impossibly good one (but no one’s fool), to Scarlett’s selfish and impetuous beauty. Often cast in demure and “ladylike” parts, she was empowered (long before that word, like too many others, became a marketing favorite) to refuse frivolous roles and to demand challenging work.

Olivia de Havilland sued Warner Brothers in 1943 and won, in a decision that has become a cornerstone of entertainment law. The studio was prevented from extending her contract to reflect the period she was suspended for turning down unsubstantial parts, and the balance of power in Hollywood shifted to the actors.

She left Hollywood for Paris in 1955, where she continues to live. In 1965, she was first woman president of the Palme d’Or jury at the Cannes Film Festival.

Asked during a 2006 interview if she missed acting, Olivia de Havilland said, “Not at all. Life is too full of events of great importance. That is more absorbing and enriching than a fantasy life. I don’t need a fantasy life as once I did. That is the life of the imagination that I had a great need for. Films were the perfect means for satisfying that need.”

Olivia de Havilland, NYC, 4/6/04

Olivia de Havilland, NYC, 4/6/04

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Of Primary Importance

Zephyr Teachout

Zephyr Teachout

Jerry Nadler, my progressive, courageous, hard-working Congressman (New York’s 10th district, which includes large swaths of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn) is facing an unusual opponent in today’s Democratic primary.

Unusual in that Nadler is rarely challenged within his own party (and then some sacrificial Republican runs against him in the general). And unusual in that the opponent, Oliver Rosenberg, is a Dino (Democrat in name only), long registered in New York as a Republican, still registered in the GOP in California. And an admirer of Mitt Romney and Dick Cheney. Yuck.

Explaining the switch in affiliation (and exposing his hypocrisy and opportunism), he wrote in a fundraising email, “As the district is 82% Democrat, the only hope of winning is as a Democrat.” Right. But Republican politics by any other name in New York’s 10th is a nonstarter.

The only concern is a possible wide-spread lack of awareness of the primary and low, low, low voter turnout. Go vote. (And, take a chance, pick up your phone today if it caller ids with an unknown 646 number. It could be the President. Last week I was excited to hear from him, endorsing Congressman Nadler, even if it was just Obamarobo. In the hysteria of this election season, I’ve already started missing our First Family.)

Phil, Abby’s father, used to joke, “Good Democrats vote early and often.” If only that were true, I’d cast my second primary vote of the day for Berniecrat Zephyr Teachout, running in New York’s dramatically gerrymandered 19th district (which includes Stone Ridge) to fill the seat two-term Republican Chris Gibson is vacating.

Teachout, a law professor, shocked the political establishment in 2014. With little name recognition and less money (but with principled politics, including a strong anti-fracking position), she primaried Governor Andrew Cuomo, receiving 33% of the vote, winning several upstate counties.

And she literally wrote the book on political corruption (“Corruption in American: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United”).

In its endorsement of Teachout, the New York Times (maybe atoning a bit for its shameful treatment of Bernie) wrote, “…she has the potential to be a rarity in Congress — an effective local representative who has national stature as a legal expert on political reform…Her political skills and expertise would make her a powerful ally for those who have become angry and disillusioned by Washington’s chronic dysfunction…Teachout could focus attention on the ways big business, big agriculture and big monopolies distort the economy and hobble those trying to survive.”

Go vote. Start flipping the seat back to our side. And join Zephyr Teachout tonight at 9:00 pm (when the polls close) at the Senate House Garage, 4 North Front Street, Kingston.

Stone Ridge, NY, 6/27/16

Stone Ridge, NY, 6/27/16

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The Eternal Other

Thomas Bidegain, NYC, 10/1/15

Thomas Bidegain, NYC, 10/1/15

Thomas Bidegain’s debut feature, the elegantly shot (“anamorphic ‘Scope, using old lenses”) and deeply unsettling, “Les Cowboys,” takes John Ford’s iconic 1956 western, “The Searchers” as its framework and updates it with the geopolitical realities of globalization. (And while this is Bidegain’s first directorial effort, he is a master screenwriter, known for his great collaborations with Jacques Audiard, “A Prophet,” “Rust and Bone” and “Dheephan.”)

In a vast landscape in eastern France, families involved in a very quirky/incongruous subculture (to my American eyes), gather for the down home “Festival Country 1994.” Dressed in cowboy hats and boots, bandanas and denim, and celebrating with live music, line dancing, horseback and mechanical bull riding and shooting, they’re self-styled cowboys, flying American and Confederate flags. Alain Balland (François Damiens), well-known and well-liked in the community, attends with his wife Nicole, 16-year-old daughter, Kelly, and young son, Kid.

Faux reluctant to take the stage, he’s coaxed up, and playing guitar, sings “Tennessee Waltz,” unaware that a lyric will very soon prove prophetic–he’s about to lose his “little darlin’ “–as Kelly vanishes from the fairgrounds.

The family is quickly able to determine that Kelly has run away with Ahmed (Alain and his friends, quietly racist, consider it a kidnapping), her young Muslim boyfriend whom her father didn’t know she was dating. Alain is assured by the police that she’ll return in a few days. In a bar, where he and Nicole meet with supportive friends, Patsy Cline’s, “I Fall To Pieces” is being played.

But as the unimaginable becomes reality, Kelly’s absence crowds out all other possibilities for Alain. Consumed with bringing his daughter home, his search becomes a poisonous obsession that propels him into unknown emotional and physical territory and as years pass, breaks apart his family and ultimately destroys him.

After Alain’s death, Kid (Finnegan Oldfield ), fine-boned and watchful (who had often accompanied his father to rescue Kelly), internalizes the older man’s disquietude and longing. Post- 9/11, working with an aid organization in refugee camps in Pakistan, his focus remains on finding his sister.

Setting out on horseback with a large, wild-haired, “gone native” American (John C. Reilly), who “trades money for people,” they arrive in a teeming city where Kid miraculously spots Ahmed and Shahzana (Ellora Torchia), a Pakistani woman he married after Kelly. The encounter quickly turns deadly and Kid is bribed out of a Pakistani jail by French consular officials. Kids trades a heavy gold bracelet for Shahzana’s freedom. Unsafe in Pakistan, she leaves with Kid for an unknown future in France.

The uneasy and violent mingling of cultures, which destroyed Kid’s original family, results in the creation of his new one. And in a unexpected series of devastating and beautiful close-ups, Bidegain shows that some measure of peace, or at least acceptance, now co-exists with the longing.

“Les Cowboys” will open on Friday June 24 at Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Cinema, and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal .

Thomas Bidegain and Finnegan Oldfield, NYC, 10/1/15

Thomas Bidegain and Finnegan Oldfield, NYC, 10/1/15

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